|RAS Korea's recently printed Transactions vol.94 / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
By Steven L. Shields
Four outstanding Korean high school students were chosen, from among their peers, in the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Korea's first-ever essay contest. These young people took a bold step and submitted essays on Korean history and culture ― in English. The judges were challenged to choose and rank the entries for prizes. The relevance of the topic, the essayists' development of their arguments and their overall ability to communicate in written English were all considered.
The idea to hold an essay contest developed after several young students at Dongducheon Foreign Language High School took the initiative to approach RAS Korea last year with their efforts. These students had read of RAS Korea's financial plight that was published in the Chosun Ilbo in the fall of 2018. Declaring that as high school students they were unable to send money, all they could send was essays. RAS Korea officers and members were overwhelmed by their outstanding and generous response and published their essays in its annual journal, Transactions. Those students are the youngest writers ever to have been published by RAS Korea in the 93 volumes of Transactions.
After publication, those same students invited RAS Korea to send representatives to their high school and conduct an afternoon seminar, attended by more than 200 students. The event was organized solely by the students ― a remarkable testimony of the fine young people who will build Korea's future. Many more students expressed interest in contributing their writing, and RAS Korea's 2020 Essay Contest was born. The contest is a fitting event to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the world's oldest Korean studies association.
The first-place winner of the first essay contest is published in Transactions vol.94. The runners-up and honorable mention will be acknowledged on a special page. RAS Korea plans to make the essay contest an annual event, and a prize sponsor has generously stepped forward so that scholarships can be awarded to the winning entrants.
RAS Korea is proud to announce the first-place winner of the 2020 Essay Contest is Park Jiwon of Daejeon Foreign Language High School. Her essay, "Your Memory, Our Memories," explores the painful topic of wartime sex slavery and the focus on Japan these days ― but recalls the Vietnam War, where Korean soldiers exerted sexual violence against Vietnamese women. She argues that one part of history demands attention to the other part of history; that Korea cannot focus on one and ignore the other.
Two runners-up were also chosen. Cho Yoonsung of Dongducheon Foreign Language High School wrote an essay titled, "The Korean Minjokseong." Cho noted that while "Minjokseong" might be rendered as "people's essential character" in English, such a translation falls short of the deeper meaning of the Korean terminology. He poses two historical events as examples of how this "essential character" has been expressed. First, Cho cites the March 1 Independence Movement. He then suggests the "Miracle on the Han River" is another example. As the 21st century dawned, Korea was struggling through the IMF crisis and emerged successfully with stronger economic foundations. Another example of this exceptional national spirit was on display during the 2016-17 mass rallies against then-President Park Geun-hye. Cho concludes by stating his affirmation that "minjokseong" is part of Korean DNA. Koreans respond collectively when the nation needs them the most.
The other runner-up is Choi Yeeun of Daeil Foreign Language High School in Seoul. She wrote "The Cherishable Island of Korea, Dokdo." While giving a brief introduction of the history and territorial claims about the island, she focuses much of her essay on the vibrant ecosystem of the two small, rocky outcroppings. She reports there are at least 160 types of birds, more than 130 kinds of insects and at least 60 different types of plant life. Of course, the seas surrounding the island are rich with a variety of sea life, due to the confluence of the swirling cold and warm currents. She reports that "Dokdo" means "lonely island" and suggests that people should relieve its loneliness by remembering and protecting such a valuable resource.
Finally, the judges granted an honorable mention to Lee Juhyun of Myung Duk Foreign Language High School. Her essay was titled "The development of women's right in Korea from the Joseon dynasty to present: Focusing on Korean literature." Lee argues that women were treated equally during the 918-1392 Goryeo Dynasty. With the advent of Joseon and its reliance on neo-Confucianism as a societal system, women came under severe oppression. Strict rules governing women were institutionalized in the Gyeongguk Daejeon, a collection of the fundamental laws governing the kingdom. Lee makes several references to the oppression of women showing up in 17th- and 18th-century Korean poetry as well. Finally, modern feminist movements had their beginnings during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea, and have continued to the present. Although women's rights have advanced, there is still much work to be done.
RAS Korea is delighted to be able to sponsor this essay contest to further the work of the society in promoting all things Korean. Again, these four young people are congratulated with the highest acclaim for jobs well done. RAS Korea looks forward with high expectations for next year's contest.
This year's publication of Transactions also includes 10 more essays, including an essay on Korean poetic dissent by RAS Korea President Brother Anthony, a deconstruction of KBS' worldwide K-pop cover dance competition by CedarBough T. Saeji, the "K-pop doctor," plus the bloody history of Korean wolves as told by Robert Neff and a photo essay on Jeju shamanism by author Joey Rositano.
Steven L. Shields, a retired cleric, serves as a vice president of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea (www.raskb.com) and is a columnist for The Korea Times.